Saturday, October 10, 2015

Determining the Lifestyles of PreColumbian Amazonian Tribes Through Linguistics

In my class on October 5, 2015, we talked about how ancestral languages can be reconstructed on the basis of their present-day descendants and how such linguistic reconstructions (particularly reconstructions of the vocabulary) can be used to reimagine the lives of the speakers of such ancestral languages. While most of our examples in class dealt with Indo-European languages (with a brief foray into the Polynesian world), here I would like to present another example where the same sort of socio-cultural reconstruction can be done on the basis of unwritten languages who offer us a rare glimpse into the lives of the their speakers’ linguistic ancestors. This example concerns three indigenous South American language families: Arawakan, Tukanoan, and Nadahup. These languages are spoken in the Upper Rio Negro region, on the border of Columbia and Brazil (see the map on the left adapted from The present-day Arawak languages are shown in pale-green, Tukanoan languages are shown in yellow, and Nadahup languages in brown. (The best-known language in the Nadahup family—at least in linguistic circles—is Nadëb, which exhibits the rarest Object-Subject-Verb order, found only in a handful of languages around the world, 4 in the WALS sample.) Of the three families, only the Nadahup is limited to this region, while Tukanoan languages are also spoken elsewhere through South America and Arawakan languages are found from Brazil to the Caribbean.

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